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Dials and Hands

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

The dial plate and the hands which move around above it to indicate the time are the most important parts of the "face" of a watch. They give it its function, and also its beauty.

Watch dials can be divided broadly into two groups; classical and modern. Classical watch dials were sometimes made of metal, but when the technique of making enamel dials was developed in the eighteenth century, the intrinsic beauty of the smooth and clear white or cream finish became the favoured material for the next two hundred years. However, enamel dials are difficult and expensive to make, so in the mid-twentieth century dials that were simply painted or lacquered came into fashion. These painted dials were not only much cheaper than enamel dials, but allowed much more freedom of design so that brand names, logos and colours could be more easily used.

It is important to understand how dials were made and which type of dial you are dealing with, because this affects how they can be cleaned or restored. For example, vitreous enamel dials are incredibly durable and will happily go through a hot wash in an ultrasonic tank and look all the better for it, but they can easily be cracked if even slightly bent. On the other hand, metal dials with painted finishes will bend without problems, but their surface is very delicate. It frequently deteriorates over time, discolouring or flaking, which is a problem because the delicate paint or lacquer finish can be destroyed by even gentle cleaning; if you put a painted dial through a hot wash in an ultrasonic tank, all that comes out is a blank metal plate!

To collectors of modern watches, the fragility of painted dials is a problem. Simply age or sunlight can discolour or cause the paint to crack, and if any moisture has got into the case, or too much oil has been applied to the movement, and has got to the dial, this can also damage the paint. The only way to repair such damage is to strip off the paint and repaint the dial - a “redial”. There are a number of companies who specialise in doing this, a quick internet search for “dial refinish” will return a list. Many modern watches have undergone this treatment. Although the improvement in appearance can be dramatic, the loss of originality often has a major affect on the value of the watch.

Collectors of watches with enamel dials are in a different, perhaps better, position. There is really no such thing as a redial of an enamel dial. Unless the enamel is badly cracked, a simple wash brings it up perfectly clean and as new, and can even make hairline cracks virtually invisible. If the dial had luminous paint on it, which originally would have been radioactive radium paint on an enamel dial, then this can be cleaned off and replaced, which is described as “re-luming” a dial rather than refinishing it. Radium luminous paint was usually replaced every few years because it stopped glowing.

It is also important to understand what type or style of hands go with what type of dial, so that the harmonious appearance of the two is preserved. Failure to appreciate this is most often seen when a dial with skeleton numerals for luminous paint has been fitted with plain instead of skeleton hands. There would not be much point in being able to see the numerals in the dark if you couldn't see where the hands were pointing!

Enamel Dials

Porcelain Dials?

Sometimes enamel dials are incorrectly described as “porcelain”: this is wrong. Porcelain is made from clay and is not suitable for watch dials; it is used for tableware such as plates and bowls. Watch dials are made using vitreous enamel, a type of glass. In the USA this is called “porcelain enamel”. This is often shortened to just “porcelain”, which is inaccurate.

In the eighteenth century, the process of using vitreous enamel to make high quality dials with white, cream, or sometimes black, backgrounds, with hour numbers, minute tracks and other other details in vitreous ink, was developed. These superseded the metal dials that had been used previously.

The word “enamel” refers to any hard shiny coating such as tooth enamel, enamel paint, or even nail enamel (nail varnish). However, when used in the context of watch dials, enamel refers to an opaque or semi-transparent hard, glass like, surface applied to a metal dial plate by vitrification. Vitrification (from Latin vitreum (glass) via French vitrifier) is the transformation by melting of a substance into a glass. The full name of the substance used for watch dials is vitreous enamel.

Vitreous enamel dials have a very hard surface which is usually shiny and reflective like glass, but the surface can be made matt by rubbing with abrasive after firing.

Vitreous enamel is made from powdered glass. Tin oxide is added to make it opaque white, other chemicals are used for other colours. To make a dial the enamel is fused onto a copper dial plate by firing in an oven at high temperature, melting the glass and causing it to run together to produce a smooth glassy surface. First the overall white or black background is made, which might take four rounds of firing and smoothing to get the desired finish. Then the numbers and tracks are drawn on in black or white enamel ink, which is then also fired, at a lower temperature, to fix it to the white background.

After firing, vitreous enamel is invulnerable to ageing or fading and can be easily cleaned; an enamel dial will happily go through an ultrasonic clean. Vitreous enamel will be cracked if the dial is flexed, e.g. by being handled clumsily or levered off from the movement without releasing them first, but apart from this kind of physical damage they will last forever.

Enamel dials are expensive to make, so in the twentieth century cheaper materials were used, usually by printing the details onto a metal base and then covering with clear lacquer. Such dials are prone to discolouration, fading, and spotting, but are are extremely delicate and cannot be satisfactorily be cleaned.

To make an enamel dial, a sheet of copper is cut to the correct size and shape, with holes for the hand arbors, and "dial feet" attached to its underside. Dial feet are small copper rods attached to the underside of the dial, usually by welding or soldering. They enter holes in the movement bottom plate, where they and are gripped by screws or clips. Over tightening the dial feet screws is a frequent cause of distortion to the dial plate, causing the enamel to crack.

In manufacture, the copper dial plate is coated with crushed and finely powdered glass. It is then heated in a furnace to about 800°C until the powder melts and becomes liquid, bonding to the copper and fusing together to form a coating of glass with a smooth glassy surface. This process is usually repeated several times, with the dial being cleaned and rubbed down between each layer, to get a perfectly smooth and opaque surface.

The numerals and minute and seconds tracks are then added in vitreous painting enamel, sometimes called vitreous ink, either hand painted or transferred with a stamp, and the dial is fired again. This melts the enamel of the numbers and other details and bonds them into to the base layer of enamel. In the cross section I have shown a white enamel dial with red ink on it, say a red number 12. When the enamel of the numbers and other details melts and bonds with the underlying enamel it becomes virtually flat with the dial surface as the cross section shows. The numbers and tracks become as much a part of the dial as the underlying enamel and cannot be removed.

Initially the numbers and tracks were painted by hand, but later an engraved copper block was used. The engravings were filled with vitreous ink and a gelatine pad used to pick up the ink and stamp it onto the dial. In this way many dials could be made accurately and quickly.

Enamel Paint

Fake “Rolex Marconi” Logo: Click image to enlarge.
Dial cross section
Dial Cross Section (not to scale).

The drawing of an enamel dial cross section shows how enamel paint can be added to a vitreous enamel dial. Unlike the vitreous ink used to make the markings and numerals on the dial, the enamel paint cannot be fired - the paint would just burn. This means that the enamel paint does not form a strong bond with the underlying vitreous enamel, it just sits proud of its surface as shown in the drawing.

Enamel paint was often used to add a British retailer's name to an enamel dials of watches that were imported into Britain before the mid 1920s. Before the mid 1920s British retailers would not buy watches with a manufacturer's names or brand on their dials. If there was any name on the dial, it was that of the retailer. A small number of retailers were large and important enough to have their names or brands put onto dials in fired vitreous ink as they were made, but most did not, so enamel paint was used.

This means that Rolex, Longines, Omega, etc. watches sold in Britain before the mid 1920s didn't have their brand on the dial, and sometimes there was no name to be found anywhere. Nowadays most people expect to see a name on the dial, so some unscrupulous people have names painted on to make the watch more saleable (read "valuable"). It looks wrong.

Rolex is the most faked watch brand, so this addition of a name onto a dial in enamel paint happens most often with the Rolex name. Needless to say, just painting Rolex onto a dial does not really transform a watch into a Rolex watch. Sometimes the name is added to a genuine Rolex watch because the owner expects to see it there, but often watches that were never Rolex watches in the first place receive a new name. This is what has happened with the dial of a Marconi watch shown in the image here. If you enlarge it you can see the shiny new enamel paint on the surface of the vitreous enamel dial. It is obvious that this had been painted on quite recently.

Enamel paint is a totally different material from vitreous enamel, it is called enamel because it forms a harder, glossier, surface than other paints such as oil paint. However, enamel paint is nothing like as durable as the vitreous enamel of the dial itself. Unlike vitreous enamel, enamel paint can be easily dissolved by a solvent such as acetone or isopropyl alcohol.

Unlike the fired vitreous ink of the numerals and tracks, enamel paint doesn't bond into the underlying vitreous enamel but remains on its surface. It can usually be easily distinguished from the fired numbers and tracks by looking obliquely across the dial with a lens when it can be seen standing proud of the surface as illustrated. Because the vitreous enamel of the dial is very shiny, enamel paint has difficulty sticking to it and the added names have often become badly worn, or disappeared altogether.

If you look carefully at a vitreous enamel dial and detect that a name has been added in enamel paint, but the name doesn't show any signs of ageing, chipping or flaking, then it is quite likely that the name has been added recently.

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Dial Refinishing

Enamel dials require little in the way of refinishing compared to the printed and lacquered dials that followed. Think of the difference between cleaning a glass dish and a glossy magazine. The glass dish can be plunged into warm soapy water and will come out looking like new, but you can't treat a glossy magazine the same way. In fact, printed and lacquered dials can only be very lightly cleaned, and a badly degraded dial will have to be either left as it is, which is often the best option, or completely stripped of its original finish and reprinted, which never looks exactly the same as the original.

Non-luminous enamel dials and hands have no paint. The dial can be cleaned in many ways, but if it has cracks, an ultrasonic wash is a good method because it removes dirt from the cracks and makes them less visible. Hands are often heat blued steel, which can be polished and re-blued.

Removing paint from a luminous enamel dial and hands is relatively easy, but radioactive materials in the original paint mean that many companies will not take on this work. Putting paint back on the numerals and hands to match the original is important. Close up photos of the dial and hands should be sent to several companies with a detailed description of what you want, asking if they can do it in the way that you wish. If you want the dial and hands to look exactly like they do now, paint colour and finish included, make sure you say so. Be as detailed as you can in describing what you want, don't imagine that they will know.

Think carefully about getting radium paint on an early dial replaced with luminous paint. The old radium paint no longer glows in the dark, so if you replace it with luminous paint which does, it will be obvious what has been done. Replacing radioluminescent paint is a good thing, it eliminates the radiation and radon problem, making it obvious that the paint is a modern luminous compound and not the old, non glowing, radium based lume.

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Hand Styles

It seems obvious to say, but the style of the hands should match the style of the dial, and the hands should match each other.

Old watches have sometimes had their hands replaced, which might not be obvious when you first see a watch that you are interested in, but becomes more painful to look at as time goes by, and can be difficult to rectify. The reason that the wrong hands were fitted by a watch repairer in the past was that hands of the correct style, in the correct lengths and with the correct size holes to fit the hour and minute pinions, were not available at the time, and can be equally if not more difficult to find today.

Hands should also be the right length. The minute and seconds hands should terminate on their respective tracks, and the hour hand should point to or just touch the number.

Luminous Hands

Poire Squelette hands
Poire Squelette hands

If the numerals on the dial are skeletonised for luminous paint, the hands should also be skeletonised to take the same luminous paint. There would not be much point in being able to see luminised numerals in the dark if you couldn't see where the hands were!

The correct shape for the hands of a trench watch is shown in the image here. The shape of these hands was called in Swiss/French “poire squelette” (the second word is pronounced “skelette”) that is “pear skeleton”, presumably after the pear shaped bulge at the end of the hour hand.

This style is referred to in manufacturers catalogues of the time as “Luminous” or often simply “Radium”. The hands are sometimes referred to as “cathedral” hands because they look a bit like a stained glass leaded window.

Luminous hands like this became widely used during the First World War as an essential feature of a trench watch. The luminous effect was created by radioluminescent paint that used radium and other radioactive elements to power the glow, hence the name Radium for the style of hands.

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The Date Window

Swiss patent No. 5139, 19 June 1892
Swiss patent No. 5139, 19 June 1892: Click image to enlarge

Who invented the date window, the little window on a wristwatch dial that shows today's date?

I am pretty sure that Rolex would like us to think that it was them. Today the Rolex web site (accessed 15 August 2019) says “The year 1945 saw the birth of the Datejust, the first self‑winding wrist chronometer to indicate the date in a window on the dial.” This is not quite the same as saying that Rolex invented the date window in 1945, but without the qualification “self‑winding wrist chronometer”, which I am sure that many people would see as just a fancy way of saying wristwatch, it would say that the Datejust was the first watch with a date window.

Rolex did invent the “cyclops”, the magnifier in the crystal that magnifies the date to make it easier to read. This is said to have been inspired by Betty, Wilsdorf's second wife, who complained that the date on her ladies' Rolex wristwatch was too small to read. The cyclops was introduced in the early 1950s.

However, Rolex did not invent the date window itself.

Jean-Louis Jeanmaire

The earliest patent yet seen for a date window is illustrated by the figure from a Swiss patent reproduced here.

It is Swiss patent No. 5139, dated 19 June 1892. The patent was granted to Jean-Louis Jeanmaire, of Orvin near to Bienne. It is titled Quantième à guichet pour montres et pendules or Calendar window for watches and clocks.

The diagrams in the figure illustrate the method of operation.

The date is displayed through a hole in the dial by two circular discs, one numbered 0 to 3 and the other 0 to 9 to allow the full range of dates from 01 to 31 to be displayed. The day of the week is displayed by a third disc through a second hole in the dial below the centre.

The day of the week and the 0 to 9 disc are moved forward by the watch mechanism every twenty four hours. As the 0 to 9 disc completes its revolution, which takes place every 10 days, the index labelled d between the 0 and 9 on its periphery moves to 0 to 3 disc on one place.

The indexing of the date discs would allow 32, 33 etc to appear after 31, but the patent mentions that there are three pushers that enable the discs to be moved at will to any desired position, so presumably the owner of the watch was expected to change the date from 32 to 01.

The separation of the first and second digits of the date onto separate rings is reminiscent of the big date display introduced by A. Lange & Söhne at its relaunch in the Lange 1. Indeed, the patent granted to Jeanmaire says that the two disc construction allows it to be applied to ‘un quantième de très grandes dimensions’, a date of very large dimensions. Lange are careful to say that theirs is the first example of a big date display being used in a wristwatch.

Marlys' Date Watch

Adie-Marlys Date Watch 1930
Adie-Marlys Date Watch 1930: Click image to enlarge.

The advertisement from the Watchmaker & Jeweller, Silversmith & Optician for October 1930 clearly shows a wristwatch with a date window; a “Marlys Date Watch” in fact.

In small print the advert says “Patents applied for in all principal countries.”

The fact that the Marly's advertisement says "Now - Marlys gives the date ..." suggests that they thought this was the first wristwatch with a date window. They were granted Swiss and French patents, but although an application was made for a British patent, it was never granted.

Marlys seem to have been particularly interested in dials. A patent was granted to them in 1928 for “Instrument permettant de reconnaître si un tour d'heure est correctement placé sur son cadran” or an instrument to recognize if a time lapse is correctly placed on the dial. This was a device for checking that dials were laid out and divided correctly. The purpose was for dial makers to be able to see if a dial printing machine was working properly, or by watch manufacturers to check that dials sent to them were free from defects.

Marlys appear to have been an assembler of watches. Movements of Marlys watches are marked “FEF” for Fabrique d'Ébauches de Fleurier.

The British agency for Marly's was taken by Adie Brothers who then traded under the style “Adie-Marlys Watch Company” at Craven House, 121 Kingsway, London.

Graef & Co Kalenderuhr

Graef & Co Kalenderuhr January 1930
Graef & Co Kalenderuhr January 1930: Click image to enlarge.

Jon Hallet discovered an application for a British patent with a very similar mechanism, "A watch or clock with a device for indicating the day of the month". This mechanism, called a “Kalenderuhr” was invented by the Swiss company Graef & Co of La Chaux-de-Fonds. The application priority date was 31 January 1930 and it was granted Swiss patent No 148818 on 15 August 1931.

The British rights to this patent were assigned to Claude Lyons of the Vertex Watch Company who made an application for a British patent. This was given the provisional number 377,953, but no patent was granted and the application, like the Marlys application for a British patent, became void. However, the priority date is nearly six months earlier than the Marlys' patents, so at the moment this Kalenderuhr date window is the earliest known.

Unlike the Marlys design, which has the date window below the 12, the Graef & Co Kalenderuhr design placed the date window at the now-familiar position of 3 o'clock on the dial.

Patek Philippe

In the Patek Philippe museum there is a perpetual calendar pocket watch with the date in an aperture at 10 o'clock, and also the day of the week and the month shown through other apertures in the dial.

This watch dates 1928-1929, just a little bit before the Graef & Co Kalenderuhr patent.

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2024. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.